Cultivars of Japan, and the future of Japanese Tea.

Culture, language, tangibles, intangibles from countries known for tea. China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India, etc...

Mar 4th 14 8:50 am
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Cultivars of Japan, and the future of Japanese Tea.

by umijoshi » Mar 4th 14 8:50 am

Josh Linvers, Umijoshi @
In the 1970s, alongside the economic growth of Japan, drinking green tea was getting more and more popular. Lots of new tea fields were planted, but still the demand was too high for domestic production to keep up. This fact combined with the people leaving the rural areas to work in the cities was starting to become an issue for Japan. Tea was being imported from other countries (mostly Taiwan), but more importantly, mechanical harvesting of the fields within Japan was developed. To better suit this new style of harvesting, new cultivars of the tea plant were propagated. One in particular, known as Yabukita (from the Shizuoka prefecture), to this day accounts for over 75% of all tea planted in Japan. Yabukita produces high yields, grows uniformly, branches upright rather vigorously, but also has a very favorable taste for the Japanese palate, known as umami.

As great as it sounded, creating a monoculture with Yabukita had undesirable consequences. Pests and diseases would spread fast and frequently, farmers couldn't necessarily justify raising the prices on their tea, and also Yabukita requires a lot of fertilization to become a quality end product; so the operating costs for farmers went up. It's mainly because of these reasons that Japan diversified its fields with other varieties.

The idea and the science behind 'terroir' have quality conscious producers replanting their fields with cultivars better suited to their temperature, humidity, soil type, resistance to specific diseases, and of course the market conditions that ultimately decide whether their work is feasible or not. As of 2014 there are 55 different cultivars registered to the Ministry of Agriculture in Japan.

Due to domestic consumption, less than 1% of Japanese tea is exported. You would have a difficult time finding anything other than yabukita in stores outside of Japan. Even within the country, although the cultivars are registered it doesn't mean they are being used. So unless you make the effort to find the unique ones, you probably wont try an Okumidori tea.

For perspective purposes I'll throw out some numbers (which are all approximate). Japan's total area for tea cultivation was 117,402 acres (as of August 2010)

Yabukita covered 90,400 (77%) of that, leaving 27,600 (23%) acres for everything else. Some of the other frequently used cultivars that I have numbers on are:
Yutakamidori: 6148 (5%) acres, usually planted in Kagoshima and Miyazaki.
Okumidori: 2013 (1.7%) acres

This leaves 19439 acres for the other 44 cultivars to share.
Production of black tea in Japan, relative to green is virtually non existent. In the year 2000 it was 0.011% putting the combination of all Beni- cultivars (eg: Benihomare, Benifuuki, Benihikari) at <129.14 acres.

Surely that number has grown in the past 14 years but I don't have current data on it. According to the obubu tea garden in Kyoto, there are more than 300 producers of wakoucha in Japan these days. I would be interested to see the amount of acres given to the Beni- cultivars now.

Gokou, Okuhikari, Tsuyuhikari, Saemidori, Asatsuyu, and all of the other 'destined to become green tea' varieties combine for a total of 19309.86 (16.4%) acres.

We live in a time that there's a market for everything. The internet is a powerful tool for trade, and quality is demanded more than ever before. We're becoming richer, and our generation has been taught that quality is worth the extra cost. Tea consumption in North America seems to be on the rise, alongside the push for healthier living. Japanese youths are drinking less tea due to the popularity of coffee and other soft drinks.

I believe Japan will start to become more artisanal with their teas. Farmers will export them at a higher price to compensate for the reduced yields or higher risks they take in the gardens, and the amount of teas exported will rise. Obviously time will tell the answer to this, thanks for reading.
Tea, second edition - The Camellia Sinensis Tea House
The Tea Companion (Connoisseur's Guides) - Jane Pettigrew‎

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Mar 4th 14 12:46 pm
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Re: Cultivars of Japan, and the future of Japanese Tea.

by bliss » Mar 4th 14 12:46 pm

Thanks for posting this. Interesting data and summary!

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Mar 4th 14 2:18 pm
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Re: Cultivars of Japan, and the future of Japanese Tea.

by William » Mar 4th 14 2:18 pm

Extremely interesting topic, Umijoshi! Thank you! :D

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Mar 6th 14 9:37 am
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Re: Cultivars of Japan, and the future of Japanese Tea.

by chrl42 » Mar 6th 14 9:37 am

Thanks for the nice article, I heard Oolong tea was a trend in Japan during 70s, too. :D